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John Ensign will retire after term to avoid ‘exceptionally ugly’ campaign

Ensign Announcement

Steve Marcus

U.S. Sen. John Ensign announces he will not seek another term in 2012 during a news conference at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2011. Ensign’s wife, Darlene, stands by him at left.

Updated Monday, March 7, 2011 | 2:44 p.m.

Ensign Announcement

U.S. Sen. John Ensign announces he will not seek another term in 2012 during a news conference at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas on Monday, March 7, 2011. Ensign's wife, Darlene, stands by him at left. Launch slideshow »

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., announced today that he will retire at the end of his term and not seek re-election in 2012.

"This campaign would be exceptionally ugly," he said this afternoon at a news conference in Las Vegas. "I just came to the conclusion I couldn't put my family through it."

More likely, Ensign realized what most in Washington and Nevada already knew: that his chances for re-election were nearly non-existent.

Once considered a hot political commodity, Ensign fell from grace in 2009 when he announced he had an affair with his best friend's wife. His parents paid the couple, who both worked for Ensign, nearly $100,000 after the affair was discovered, and Ensign helped the woman's husband, Doug Hampton, find a job.

Ensign's wife Darlene stood by his side during today's announcement and rubbed her husband's back as he stated his intentions. Ensign said that both God and his wife have forgiven him.

Ensign also dodged an FBI investigation into his actions, but he's still before the Senate Ethics Committee. Ensign said that investigation had "zero" to do with his decision.

"If I was concerned about that I would resign because then it would go away," he said.

Instead, Ensign appears to have finally taken the cues from his party and decided to step down rather than be crushed in a primary.

The senator said he made the decision last week. He broke the news to Gov. Brian Sandoval this morning.

“I appreciate Sen. Ensign’s years of service to Nevada as a member of Congress and in the U.S. Senate, and I respect the decision he and his family have made,” Sandoval said.

While Ensign continued to campaign and fundraise as recently as last month and insisted he could win, he received lackluster support from the GOP. Republican Party leaders are more concerned with keeping the seat red than protecting Ensign's political future and they were loath to support him financially.

A recent poll showed Ensign losing to every potential Democratic challenger. His approval rating is just 35 percent.

And challengers from his own party - most notably Rep. Dean Heller - were nipping at his heels.

Heller has not announced his intentions but is widely expected to run for the seat.

"This must have been a very difficult decision for John to make," Heller said today. "He and his family have been through a lot. Lynne and I wish them the very best."

Last month, Heller's internal polling showed he would beat Ensign by about 15 points in a potential primary.

Heller has also polled about 14 points stronger than Ensign in potential match-ups against Democrats, including Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is considering a bid.

But Democrats aren't willing to cede victory yet.

"We've been preparing to run against Dean Heller since Day One," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Eric Schultz said.

Democrats point out that Heller's political popularity has been safeguarded thus far because he has never had to face a competitive statewide race and represents a district that has been solidly Republican since it was created after the 1980 census.

While Heller's district does reach far downstate, he's never had to hold a large portion of the Democratic-leaning Las Vegas area, where most of the state's population is concentrated.

"Dean Heller is not as strong as he likes to portray himself," said one senior Democratic strategist with ties to the state, who asked not to be named.

The true testing grounds for Heller's cross-party appeal will come through his performance in the urban areas of his district, like Washoe County, Democrats say. There, the picture isn't quite so decisive: Heller beat Democrat Jill Derby by only 5 percent in 2006, and by barely 1 percent in 2008.

While there's not much polling for Heller in Clark county, an April 2009 study shows he's got work to do in building up a reputation here. He polled 18 percent favorably and 15 percent unfavorably -- a pretty even split, but one that suggests about two-thirds of voters in Clark County have no idea who Dean Heller is.

Heller is almost equally unknown among Nevada's influential Hispanic community.

While Berkley polls strongly both in Las Vegas (which she has represented in Congress for 12 years) and with the state's growing Hispanic population, she is untested in rural areas and Washoe county.

“Sen. Ensign spoke from the heart and acknowledged that this was a decision he made for his family and for the people of Nevada," Berkley said today. "I have said from the outset that my plans do not depend on whose name appears on the ballot. Should I choose to pursue a seat in the Senate, I will run on my record."

The DSCC already has recruited a bench of candidates in case Berkley decides against a bid. The list includes Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller.

Cortez Masto and Miller are expected to defer their announcements until after Berkley declares her intentions one way or the other. Democratic strategists expect Berkley will make her 2012 plans known in the early spring.

"Nevada is now an open seat and ripe for a Democratic pickup," DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil said. "It remains high on our target list."

Cecil said Democrats will have the resources needed to win the seat and plan to run a grassroots campaign that rivals those seen in 2008 and 2010. Democrats also point out that Nevada has been trending Democratic, evidenced by the state's selection of President Obama.

The DSCC has identified Ensign's seat in Nevada, and Scott Brown's Massachusetts seat, as their two best pickup opportunities in 2012. The GOP has only 10 Senate seats to defend, while Democrats are trying to hold onto 23.

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